SALT LAKE CITY — It's easy to say "no comment" when two national reporters show up at your office with questions about a star athlete who had a serious run-in with the law.
But football coach Dave Peck didn't think he had anything to hide, and when veteran journalists Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian left Bingham High School, they took with them a different side of the story.
The reporters came knowing that lineman Viliseni Fauonuku helped lead the Miners to a 13-0 season and the state 5A championship last fall. They knew he was being recruited by the University of Utah. And they also knew that Fauonuku had been charged with aggravated robbery for holding a gun in the faces of several teenagers while his cousin stole drugs and wallets.
For them, the teen star was a prime example of the issue they were examining: college football players recruited by colleges that usually fail to seek out, or choose to ignore, criminal backgrounds.
For six months, Benedict, Keteyian and a team of all-stars from Sports Illustrated and CBS News dug through criminal backgrounds of 2,837 athletes from the top 25 preseason college teams.
In their special report, "Criminal Records in College Football," published today in Sports Illustrated, on SI.com, CBS.com and on the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," the team reveals their findings that 7 percent of players, about 1 in 14, had a criminal history that ranged from drug possession to violent assault.
And Fauonuku is one of those players.
Peck told the Deseret News Thursday that initially he knew very little about Fauonuku's case, only discovering how serious it was months later, and even then with spotty details.
Instead, last spring and summer he was focused on "Seni" as a person, not a football player. And Seni was struggling, emotionally devastated after the death of his young nephew.
"I really like Seni, I think he's a great kid, and I know he made a huge mistake," Peck said. "I can't explain why, but he was in the lowest state he could be in. We just tried to be some adults in his life who tried to care about him."
Fauonuku was suspended for two games, and Peck knows some people accuse him and Bingham High School of trying to pull strings to keep Fauounku on the team, in school or to resolve his case. Peck immediately dismisses those. The coach never once talked with an officer, an attorney or a prosecutor. He was simply focused on his players and the increasing attention and demands of a winning team.
Fauonuku was sentenced in juvenile court in November to a lesser charge of robbery, put on probation and ordered to complete 125 hours of community service. After his probation ends, his charge will be reduced from a felony to a "delinquent act," according to CBSNews.com.
"We're just trying to make a difference with the kids we're with," Peck said. "Do we always make the best decisions? We probably don't, but none of us are out there trying to make bad decisions. We're doing it because we love what we do and we're trying to help kids. That's the bottom line."
"Everybody makes mistakes, we all make them," said Brad Bevan, Bingham High School's Athletic Director. "When you give up on a young man or woman because of something in their background … there goes your chance to influence them in a positive way. And that's what some of these coaches can do."
But the investigative report revealed that far too few of the coaches and colleges even know that there's something amiss in their players' backgrounds.
"Given what's available and what's at stake, (I was most surprised) at how little schools know, and how little they dig into the backgrounds of the kids they're bringing onto campus," said Keteyian, CBS News' chief investigative correspondent and former reporter for Sports Illustrated.
Only two of the 25 teams even attempted to conduct background checks. And those two — TCU and Oklahoma — only looked at adult records, which may include less than a year's worth of information, given the young age of many recruits.
Fauonuku, still a minor until April, recently signed with the University of Utah and was even offered a scholarship. Coach Kyle Whittingham declined to comment on the Sports Illustrated/CBS News story or the Fauonuku situation.
"What happened with (Fauonuku's) case gets to the core of the issue," said B.J. Schecter, executive editor of SI.com. "That either schools don't know the full information or they don't want to know. I think it was clear that the U. of U. didn't know a lot of the details about his case. In fact, Seni's high school coach didn't know a lot of the details until we showed him a police report. Again, (this story) isn't to place blame on Kyle Whittingham or his staff or Coach (Dave) Peck at Bingham — this is the way this system is designed right now and it's heavily flawed."
The reporters hope their investigation — the first one to review criminal backgrounds of college gridders — will spark some discussion about how to increase communication among those responsible for making admission and scholarship decisions.
"I think this has a very good chance at prompting some change," Schecter said. "Our stories, in a lot of ways, are road maps for how to obtain some of this information. We are transparent, we say exactly what we did, where we went, where the limitations are and how to get around them. I think if anybody reads this, they will say, 'OK, if they can do this for 25 teams, maybe we can do it for one team.'"
The writers checked players' names, dates of birth and other vital information in 31 courthouses and through 25 law enforcement agencies in 17 states. They also used several online databases that track criminal records, for a total of 7,030 checks.
"It's one of those stories that unless you did what we did, you never know this kind of information exists," Keteyian said. "We didn't do anything more than present it and then have people react to it."
Benedict, a lawyer, journalist and frequent SI.com contributor, explained that their investigation isn't meant to promote blanket policies regarding athletes with troublesome pasts, but to make those records more of a discussion point.
"One of the things about sports, it's the great venues for second chances," he said. "(Saying) 'no college should ever give a scholarship to a player who's been arrested' is not the point. But the fact is, there's a significant number of players that have a criminal charge on their record. I think that it probably makes sense for someone more than a single coach to be involved in the decision making process on whether to give a scholarship to a kid who's going to wear a uniform and represent a school if he's had some serious run-ins with the law."
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